With all the hype that’s surrounded Saturday’s matchup between Kentucky and Louisville, it’s been almost impressive that one has called this year’s version of the annual meeting between the no. 4 Cardinals and the no. 1 Wildcats the biggest in the rivalry’s history. It can be argued either way, that it is or isn’t.
But no matter which way you look at it, one aspects of the game remain important over everything: This is the last foreseeable major obstacle for Kentucky which could keep them from at least a perfect regular season.
In the modern history of this rivalry (it was played consistently and 1913-22 and in 1948, 1951 and 1959. But was started again on a yearly basis when the two teams met in the Mideast Regional final of the 1983 NCAA Tournament), there have been an incredible amount of great moments and stunning games. Back And Forth did the digging and came up with the Top 5 moments from the UK/UofL rivalry.
5.) Samaki Walker Goes For a Triple-Double – Jan. 1, 1995
On New Year’s Day ’95, Samaki Walker, a future Top 10 pick in the NBA Draft, gave a performance those in the rivalry are still talking about.
With the Cardinals taking on the no. 5 Wildcats in Freedom Hall in Louisville, Walker recorded the first triple-double in school history with 14 points, 10 rebounds and 11 blocks as UofL won 88-86. The game was close throughout, as Tony Delk dropped in a game-high 23 points for the Wildcats.
Much like two years later (as you’ll see lower in the column), Kentucky fans would get a measure of satisfaction at the end of the season, as then-coach Rick Pitino (which is still hard for some UK fans to stomach) would lead Kentucky to their first national title in 18 years later that season.
4.) Patrick Sparks Draws The Line – Dec. 21, 2004
Patrick Sparks wasn’t even recruited by Kentucky out of high school (he transferred there after two seasons at Western Kentucky) but he made his mark on the Wildcats with his performance – mainly with 0.6 seconds left – against Louisville in 2004.
Sparks scored 12 second half points for the no. 11 Wildcats to keep them steady with the no. 14 Cardinals, and got his chance to etch his name into the rivalry’s lore when he inbounded the ball with Kentucky down 58-57 with 4.8 seconds left. The Central City, Ky. native got the ball to Kelenna Azubuike, who drew three defenders and passed it back to Sparks for a three-pointer from the baseline corner.
Sparks pump-faked, catching a charging Ellis Myles in the air as Sparks jumped into the air (though a large portion of the UofL fanbase will argue he walked in the process) and drew the foul on Myles. A visit to the monitor confirmed the officials’ call and Sparks hit all three free throws for a 60-58 UK victory.
3.) UofL Stuns No. 3 Kentucky – Dec. 26, 1997
It’s one of those games no one around the state (or rivalry in general) saw coming.
UK was ranked no. 4 in the nation and on their way to the program’s seventh national title – and second in three seasons – while UofL was struggling towards the end of the Denny Crum era (they wouldn’t when 20 games in a season in his last four years as coach) and would end the year 12-20. But first they had to go to Rupp Arena in Lexington and take on UK, who had already beaten three Top 25 teams that season, their lone loss coming to then-no.1 Arizona in the Maui Invitational.
The Cardinals didn’t have a single player on their roster over 6-foot-7, and were playing the Wildcats’ arsenal of future pros including Scott Padgett, Jamaal Magloire and Nazr Muhammed. It didn’t matter. Louisville hit 12-of-22 threes, held Padgett to 7 points and UK to 5-for-23 from three-point range, and got 20 points from Eric Johnson to pull the 79-76 shocker.
2.) Aaron Harrison Starts His Shooting Spree – March 28, 2014
In the previous three seasons, the Louisville-Kentucky rivalry has jumped up considerably with the high level of play from both programs – they’ve combined for two national championships and three Final Fours. The fact that the schools have met in two of the last three seasons in the NCAA Tournament hasn’t hurt, either.
Last year, the Cardinals came in as the favorite, a no. 4 seed playing against the 8-seed Wildcats, who were riding the momentum of their win over previously undefeated Wichita State in what is known by many as the college basketball game of the year for 2013-14.
The game was close throughout, but Aaron Harrison opened what became his legendary string of game-winning shots with his left-corner three with 39.1 seconds left to give the Wildcats a 70-68 lead. UK would go on to win 74-69 and end their season with a loss in the national title game to UConn.
1.) Lou-Orleans v. Blue-Orleans – March 31, 2012
For Louisville and Kentucky fans, it was the pinnacle of the rivalry’s stage. The two storied college basketball programs from the Bluegrass State playing for the right to play in the national championship game in the Mercedes Benz Superdome in New Orleans.
Kentucky rolled through the regular season (including a 69-62 victory over then no. 4-Louisville on Dec. 31) at 36-2 at the time, grabbing the no. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Louisville made a run to the Final Four as a no. 4 seed and an upset of no. 1 seed Michigan State in the Sweet 16.
The Wildcats led 35-28 at halftime and the Cardinals tied the game at 49-49 on Peyton Siva’s three with 9:11 to play in the game. But future no. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis went for 18 points and 14 rebounds while Big Blue shot 57.1 percent overall and held the Cardinals to 34.8 percent from the field. Louisville actually out-rebounded the Wildcats 37-32, but Siva led UofL with 11 points as Kentucky’s talent proved to be superior.
So no matter if you agree with this list or not, it’s probably not up for debate that given recent history with this rivalry (this moment, this moment and this moment get honorable mentions nods), people can expect to see something during the game that they’ll remember for years down the road. It’s what makes this rivalry great, and arguably the best in college basketball.
David Harten runs The Backboard Chronicles. Find him on Twitter at @David_Harten.
Even though Kentucky ended up winning the National Championship last year, it was Vanderbilt who took home the SEC title. Can UK recover from five players leaving for the NBA Draft, or will another team pull off another major upset in the SEC?
1- Kentucky. Nerlens Noel will lead another star-packed Kentucky recruiting class, that was ranked No. 2 in the nation. Scouts say Noel is every bit the shot blocker Anthony Davis was, though his offensive game still needs some work. Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin will both get big minutes in their freshman years as well. Of John Calipari’s five recruits from the 2011 class, only Kyle Wiltjer elected to stay for a sophomore season. He averaged five points a game and will be the only contributor back from that National Championship team. NC State transfer Ryan Harrow will be Calipari’s most experienced point guard he has had in years. It’s hard not to pick Kentucky to win the conference with the way Calipari is able to rebuild teams quickly.
2- Missouri. With Phil Pressey and Michael Dixon, Missouri will have one of the best starting backcourts in the country. The two combined for nearly 24 points and 10 assists a year ago. The Tigers had trouble with frontcourt depth last season, but 2010 starter Laurence Bowers (10.2 points, 5.7 rebounds per game in 2009-10) is back from a torn ACL, and they will also have UCONN transfer Alex Oriakhi, who has plenty of NCAA Tournament experience. They lost three players who averaged over 13 points a game, but with who they have coming back this is still a strong team.
3- Florida. The Gators are without two of the main backcourt members, including Bradley Beal who was the No. 3 pick in the NBA Draft, but the cupboards are hardly bare. Shooting guard Kenny Boynton, who averaged nearly 16 points a game last year, will be counted on even more this year. Erik Murphy and Patric Young, who both averaged over 10 points and 4.5 rebounds a game last year return as well. This team will have a lot of depth and experience, including that of Mike Rosario and Brandon Ogbueze.
4- Tennessee. If the Volunteers can repeat what they did in their half season with freshman Jarnell Stokes, then this team will for sure be a top-five SEC team and borderline top-25 team in the nation. After Stokes was inserted into the starting lineup last year, Tennessee went 10-3. He provides a big physical presence that the Volunteers will need to rely on. He isn’t their only quality big man, as Jeronne Maymom (12.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg) will be a good counter for Stokes. Trae Golden is one of the SEC’s best point guards as well, leading the team in scoring at 13.6 a game. It’s NCAA Tournament or bust for Tennessee, as they return over 80 percent of the scoring and rebounding.
5- Arkansas. A 3-9 stretch to end last year ended squashed any chance of the Razorbacks making the Big Dance, but this year should be a different story. Arkansas got a huge break when BJ Young decided to not turn pro and stay in college another year. He led the SEC freshmen in scoring a year ago, shooting 50 percent from the field. Marshawn Powell tore knee ligaments after just two games last year — two breakout games, suggesting he is in for a big year this year. Mardracus Wade, Rickey Scott and freshmen JaCorey Williams and DeQuavious Wagner give this team a lot of depth.
9- Ole Miss
11- Texas A&M
12- Mississippi State
14- South Carolina
Jarnell Stokes- In just half of a year last season, Stokes was a monster in the post, and a full summer with the team will pay huge dividends going into his sophomore season. He only averaged 9.6 points a game, but that’s in limited playing time. Look for that to increase upward of 15 a game, as he has a full summer of workouts. He helped Team USA to a gold medal at the U18 FIBA Americas during the offseason, averaging 15 points and 5.6 rebounds a game.
Nerlens Noel- It’s hard not to compare him to Anthony Davis, especially when there have been plenty of people that said his defensive game rivals Davis’. If that’s the case, pencil Noel in for an SEC first-team selection. He may not be totally polished on offense, but in a Calipari offense the offense will definitely be there for him to average at least 10 points a game. He doesn’t have to be Anthony Davis, just Nerlens Noel, and by the looks of it — that kid can play.
BJ Young- As a freshman last season, this guard was fourth in the whole conference in field goal percentage. You just don’t see that in freshmen, especially guards. Fayetville must be excited to get Young back for another season, one that is filled with high expectations for the Arkansas squad. He averaged 15 points a game last season, and with even just a little bit of improvement I’d be shocked if he didn’t leave for the NBA after this season.
Phil Pressey- Though he averaged just 1.3 points a game, Pressey did pretty much everything else last season. He was tops in the Big 12 in assists (6.4) and steals (2.1). His field goal percentage went from 38 percent in his freshman year to 43 percent last year, but he will still need to improve on that. Pressey was the lone Tiger who showed up for their first round NCAA Tournament game with Norfolk State, scoring 20 points with eight assists. Expectations are high with this Missouri team, and a lot of their success will depend on Pressey’s play.
Kenny Boynton- With apologies to Alex Poythress, Patric Young and Georgia’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Florida’s Young gets the nod for the fifth spot on this list because of his ability to take over games with his scoring. The SEC’s leading returning scorer, Boynton has averaged at least 14 points a game in all three years at Florida. Last season he had 13 games of at least 20 points. The biggest improvement Boynton made was in his field goal percentage, which jumped from 38 percent to 44 percent.
Most Underrated Team- Alabama
The Crimson Tide had a two-man monster in JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell a year ago, but with both of them graduated Alabama will need a new identity. Look no further than Devonta Pollard, who may be the best freshman in the conference aside from UK’s. Pollard has tremendous athleticism and will fit in right away with Alabama. Returning for the Crimson Tide is Trevor Releford, who last year averaged 12 points a game on 48 percent shooting. There are no seniors this year, so if they finish in the middle of the pack this year, look for them to be in the top-5 in 2013-14.
Most Overrated Team- Vanderbilt
With all of the pieces they graduated, it’s hard to imagine the Commodores enjoying much success this year. Jeff Taylor, John Jenkins and Festus Ezeli are all graduated, leaving a big hole on the Vanderbilt squad that won the SEC Tournament last year. Not many are picking the Commodores to do much of anything this year, but fans may look at this time as a top-half SEC team just by habit. But with their top six players graduated, that simply will not be the case.
This one was a toss up for me, but if Tennessee repeats what they did when they had Stokes in the starting lineup last year, then it should be their sophomore big man who takes home this award. Word in Knoxville is that Stokes has looked even more polished. He made his presence known in just his third game last year, pulling down 12 rebounds and scoring 16 points in an upset win over UCONN. I envision Stokes being a double-double machine this year. He is now used to Cuonzo Martin’s system and knows what to expect out of the team, including that of Trae Golden who will feed Stokes the ball early and often.
Coach of the Year- Cuonzo Martin
Not many people expected Tennessee to be good this soon after Bruce Pearl’s exit. But Martin has put the Volunteers in a position to contend for the No. 2 team in the conference behind Kentucky. With several players on his team recruited from Pearl’s team, Martin was able to keep the team focused enough to contend for the NCAA Tournament, and they will be better this year with most of their players returning. The biggest thing Martin has done was grab the aforementioned Stokes as a part of his first recruiting class.
Sleeper Impact Player- Marshawn Powell
Powell began the 2011-12 season as good as anyone, scoring at least 19 points with five rebounds in each of his first two games. His season was short lived, as he tore knee ligaments after in just the first week of the season. He’s back for an Arkansas team that has high expectations. Powell is a guy who averaged 14.9 points and then 10.8 points in his first two years at Arkanas, and the Razorbacks will need him to be a double-digit scorer again in what they think will be a big year for their team.
Photos: SEC Conference/Google Images